Workers’ Compensation Cases Must Be Heard and Adjudicated in “Locality” Where Injury Occurred

In Younkin v Zimmer et al, a 2-1 published opinion by the Court of Appeals, the Court affirmed a trial court’s decision to issue a writ of mandamus requiring workers’ compensation claims to be heard in the locality where the injury occurred in accordance with MCL 418.851.  The majority holds that the Michigan Legislature “limited the geographic area within which a hearing on workers’ compensation claims may be held and that the transfer of the hearings to Dimondale exceeded that limitation.”  Slip Op. at 1.

In 2012, the Defendants, the executive director of the Michigan Administrative Hearing System and the director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), sought to close the Flint district office of the workers’ compensation agency and transfer all workers’ compensation claims arising in Genesee County, including the plaintiff’s claim, from the Flint district office to the Dimondale district office, which is located within 70 miles of Genesee County.

Plaintiff worked for General Motors at its assembly plant in Flint. He injured his back while working and was determined to be totally and permanently disabled.  Plaintiff then filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits with the workers compensation office in Flint.

In 2012, Plaintiff filed a writ of mandamus action in circuit court to compel Defendants to comply with the Workers Disability Compensation Act (WDCA), MCL 418.301 et seq., and particularly, with MCL 418.851, which required all hearings on workers’ compensation claims to be held in the locality where the injury occurred.  Plaintiff sought mandamus to have the trial court require the Defendants to ensure that hearings on all cases arising out of injuries occurring in Genesee County be held in the locality of the injury as required by the statute.

Defendants argued the statute required only that the hearing be held in a place that is convenient for the parties and their witnesses.  Further Defendants argued that mandamus was not a proper remedy because they had discretion to make budgetary decisions to close unnecessary facilities and reassign magistrates.

The trial court ruled that Plaintiff (and all others similarly situated) had a legal right to have their workers’ compensation claims adjudicated in the locality where the injury occurred as required by the language of MCL 418.851.  The trial court also ordered that the Defendants “rescind the directive that cases arising out of Genesee County be transferred to a hearing site in Dimondale.”  Slip Op. at 3.

The Court of Appeals majority (M. J. Kelly, PJ, and Fort Hood) affirmed.  It first ruled the trial court had authority to issue a mandamus because the Plaintiff had a clear legal right to performance of the duties it sought to compel of the public officials, and the public officials had a concomitant “clear legal duty” to perform those acts arising out of those duties.

The Court reasoned Defendants, as the chief executives in charge of the Michigan administrative hearing system and LARA, have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring proper conduct of any administrative hearings held under the authority of the WDCA.

Interpreting the relevant statutory provision, MCL 418.851, which states, in pertinent part, “[t]he [workers’ compensation] hearing shall be held at the locality where the injury occurred”, the Court of Appeals concluded that there “could be no reasonable dispute that the Legislature’s use of the word “shall…plainly and unequivocally requires the magistrate to hold the hearing to resolve the dispute ‘at the locality where the injury occurred.'”  Slip Op. at 4.

Since it was undisputed that Plaintiff “sustained the injury giving rise to his workers’ compensation claim in Flint…the magistrate assigned to resolve any disputes concerning [Plaintiff’s] claim for workers’ compensation benefits must hold the hearings to resolve the disputes in the locality that includes Flint.”  Id. at 6.  The majority concluded “Dimondale is not sufficiently close to qualify as the ‘locality where the injury occurred.”  MCL 418.851.

The majority also held that the legislative directive “applies to all hearings to resolve disputes concerning a claimant’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits.”  Id. at 8.

With MCL 418.851, the Legislature made a clear policy choice in favor of local hearings; it required magistrates to resolve disputes over workers’ compensation claims by holding a hearing “at the locality where the injury occurred.” MCL 418.851. Although the failure to hold such hearings at the locality will not “void” the result…that fact does not give magistrates the unfettered discretion to ignore the Legislature’s directive that the hearings be held in the locality where the injury occurred.  Claimants whose injuries occurred within Genesee County have a clear legal right to have disputes over their claims resolved at hearings held within that locality.  Similarly, [Defendants] had and have a clear legal duty to ensure that the magistrates who fall under their authority comply with MCL 418.851 and hold the hearings to resolve those disputes in the locality where the injury occurred.

Judge Cavanagh dissented, arguing that Defendants’ establishment of “reasonably located hearing district offices throughout the state which service definite regions of the state to particular hearing district offices” was entitled to “respectful consideration”.  Slip Op. at 2 (Cavanagh, dissenting).  He pointed out that although the majority interpreted the term “locality” in the statute to include the commonly understood term “region”, the majority narrowed the term to mean that “region” must be “the municipality where the injury occurred”.

Judge Cavanagh stated:

My conclusion is also cognizant of the fact that a “strong rationale” for the WDCA is to provide injured employees with “expeditious” relief.  Considering the realities of budgetary constraints and the limited number of magistrates, as well as the summary nature of worker’s compensation proceedings, requiring hearing locations in every community, neighborhood, or municipality would not only be extremely costly and unnecessary, but would defeat a significant purpose of the WDCA which is to provide expeditious relief to claimants. I agree with plaintiff’s argument that defendants cannot disregard their statutory duty because of a reduction in state funding.  However, I would conclude that defendants fulfilled their duty under MCL 418.851 by establishing reasonably located hearing district offices throughout the state which service definite regions of the state.

This 2-1 published Court of Appeals opinion is likely to cause significant enough controversy to warrant further attention.  The Defendants have until Tuesday, May 27 to file an Application for Leave to Appeal with the Supreme Court.

For more than a century, Lacey & Jones has distinguished itself from other law firms by maintaining a robust Appeals and Legal Research Group.  Effective appellate representation demands different skills than those required by litigation attorneys.  Our appellate attorneys are adept at analyzing the intricacies of each case from an objective and critical perspective.  From reviewing and preparing the lower court record, identifying appealable errors, and developing a strategy to raise issues that will be addressed by appellate courts, our seasoned appellate team is capable of handling the most complex appeals from the application stage to oral advocacy before the highest courts.  Our research abilities and knowledge of current issues in nearly all major subject-matter areas of the law provide our clients with efficient and immediate assistance with complex and high-exposure cases.

We are experienced at navigating through all appellate courts to shepherd the appeal in the most expeditious fashion possible so that it can be reviewed and quickly ruled upon.

During the last three decades alone, the Appeals and Legal Research Group at Lacey & Jones has been responsible for over 150 published decisions, including seminal decisions in workers’ compensation, governmental immunity, employment and labor law, civil rights law and insurance coverage.  Because of its specialized knowledge and focus on appellate law and its recognized expertise, the Appeals and Legal Research Group at Lacey & Jones has been asked to participate as amicus curiae writing briefs for the Supreme Court or as special counsel to the Michigan Attorney General and other governmental entities in some of the most significant cases in the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.   Below are some of the recent significant cases in which Lacey & Jones, LLP’s Appeals and Legal Research Group has participated.

  • Estate of Truett v. Wayne County (Court of Appeals Docket No. 313638 (May 6, 2014)
  • Yono v. MDOT, ___ Mich. App. ___ (201_), amicus curiae brief to be filed after remand for Michigan Municipal League, et al., by Carson J. Tucker
  • Omian v. Chrysler Group, LLC, 495 Mich. 859 (2013), application filed by Carson J. Tucker, Supreme Court remand to Court of Appeals on leave granted
  • Ghanam v. John Does, 303 Mich. App. 522 (2013), application to appeal filed in Supreme Court by Carson J. Tucker
  • State Farm v. MMRMA, ___ Mich App ___ (2013), amicus curiae for Oakland County in support of MMRMA application, by Carson J. Tucker
  • Hannay v MDOT, ___ Mich ___ 201_), application granted, amicus curiae filed for Michigan Townships Association, Macomb County, Oakland County and Wayne County, et al., by Carson J. Tucker
  • Yono v. MDOT, ___ Mich ___ (201_), oral argument on application granted, amicus curiae for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne County filed by Carson J. Tucker in support of the state’s application
  • Huddleston v. Trinity Health, et al., 495 Mich. 976 (2014), oral argument on application granted, amicus curiae with Lawrence Garcia, Esq., for MDTC
  • Ashley, LLC v Pittsfield Twp., 494 Mich 875 (2013), application granted, for Pittsfield Township by Carson J. Tucker (resolved by settlement)
  • Bailey v. Schaaf, ___ Mich ___ (2013), amicus curiae for MDTC by Carson J. Tucker
  • Atkins v. SMART, 492 Mich 707 (2012), oral argument on application, Court of Appeals case reversed by opinion, Carson J. Tucker
  • Hagerty v Manistee, 493 Mich 933 (2013), amicus curiae for Michigan Municipal League, et al., by Carson J. Tucker
  • McMurtrie v Eaton Corp, 490 Mich 976 (2011)
  • Findley v DaimlerChrysler Corp., 490 Mich 928 (2011)
  • Brewer v. AD.Transport Express, Inc, 486 Mich 50 (2010)
  • Stokes v Chrysler, 481 Mich 266 (2008)
  • Brackett v Focus Hope, Inc, 482 Mich 269 (2008)
  • Rakestraw v Gen Dynamics, 469 Mich 220 (2003)

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